Two-hour NOVA special
Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS
Reviewed by Kenneth Atkinson
NOVA’s two-hour special, “The Bible’s Buried Secrets,” takes viewers on a fascinating quest in search of the origins of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament. Filmed on locations throughout the Middle East, the program uses a combination of videos, advanced digital animation techniques, and interviews with many experts to introduce the public to the latest findings in biblical scholarship and archaeology. Readers of BAR will immediately recognize many names, sites, and debates covered in this film, including such controversies as the Documentary Hypothesis, the historicity of the Exodus, and whether the kingdoms of David and Solomon existed. Seasoned scholars and the general public alike will find this special’s stunning photography and interviews compelling. Viewers can learn more about many of the issues explored in this special, and send their questions to some of the show’s experts, at the accompanying website (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/bible/).
Unlike many similar documentaries, “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” does not begin with the book of Genesis or the Patriarchal period. Rather, it opens with the problematic issue of whether it is possible to establish a firm and reliable chronology between the Bible and archaeology. It uses Sir William Flinder Petrie’s 1896 discovery of the “Merneptah Stele” in Thebes, Egypt, as an illustration. This monument, carved in 1208 B.C.E., recounts the military victories of the son of Ramesses the Great—the king many believe was the Pharaoh of the biblical Exodus. One line of this text reads “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” Egyptologist Donald Redford suggests this passage is the earliest evidence that a people called “Israel” existed. William Dever—a familiar name to BAR readers—examines the problem in correlating such artifacts with the Bible, which is primarily a theological document. He suggests that we are on firmest ground when we find intersections between science and Scripture. Unfortunately, as he and many experts stress throughout the show, such correspondences are rare, and often subject to multiple interpretations.
The documentary next turns to one of the major problems in seeking to uncover the Bible’s buried secrets, namely sources. Known as the Documentary Hypothesis, this theory proposes that the Pentateuch is a compilation of four major sources, all of which were later edited. To explain this theory to the public, the producers use graphics to visually separate two distinct versions of the biblical flood story. Biblical scholar Michael Coogan is among the many experts who explain this theory throughout the film. Like the archaeologists in this documentary, he emphasizes that the Bible is a theological anthology produced by many authors over several centuries.
The film next tackles the question of literacy in antiquity. Experts such as P. Kyle McCarter and Ron Tappy discuss the inscribed alphabet from Tel Zayit to suggest that the writing of the Hebrew Bible could have started as early as 950 B.C.E. Lawrence Stager and others explore archaic language in the Bible to argue that the earliest biblical stories, such as the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), were transmitted in poetry. Emphasizing that there is no archaeological confirmation of the Exodus, several scholars discuss the theological importance of this story, with its emphasis on freedom from oppression, in creating Israel’s identity.
BAR readers will perhaps find the film’s examination of this historicity of the conquest the most interesting part of the special. It explores the massive Canaanite remains at Jericho, uncovered by John Garstang in the 1930′s, and Ai, now being excavated by Hani Nur el-Din, to show that they predate the time of Joshua’s supposed conquest. The film next surveys the destruction of Hazor, which dates to around 1250 B.C.E. Its current excavators, Amnon Ben-Tor and Sharon Zuckerman, give viewers some insight into the problematic nature of archaeological interpretation. While Ben-Tor believes he has uncovered confirmation of the Israelite conquest, his co-director Zuckerman views the same remains as evidence of an internal social revolt of Hazor’s poor and oppressed against their elites. If the latter is correct, as the film notes, there is no clear confirmation of the biblical conquest.
The documentary next explores the related and problematic issue of Israelite ethnicity, and how to detect it in the archaeological record. Israel Finkelstein introduces viewers to his survey of the central hill country that has uncovered evidence of rapid population growth. The producers incorporate clips of interviews with such distinguished experts as Amnon Ben-Tor, Israel Finkelstein, William Dever, Peter Machinist, and Abraham Faust, to explore this evidence. These and other scholars offer different opinions as to whether ceramic and architectural remains, such as the floor-room house, are markers of distinctive Israelite identity, or merely show a continuation of earlier Canaanite culture.
Perhaps no topic in the film is more controversial than the existence of the kingdoms of David and Solomon. The film discusses the phrase “House of David”in the Tel Dan Stele, which many believe proves David’s existence. Although the so-called minimalist school is occasionally acknowledged, the documentary does not explore the controversy over this monument’s discovery, or alternative translations. Eilat Mazar takes the viewer on a tour of remains she identifies as David’s palace. The producers do an excellent job of showing how her identification rests on dating. The film introduces viewers to ceramic typology (pottery dating) and stratigraphy (dating of layers of earth) to show how archaeologists date remains. Israel Finkelstein argues that our present chronology, which the great biblical scholar and archaeologist W. F. Albright largely created, depends too heavily on the Bible. The documentary then introduces radiocarbon dating showing that this tool, because it gives us a range of possible dates, cannot provide a firm resolution to many questions raised in this film.
The special examines many other topics and controversies that BAR has covered in depth throughout its decades of publication, including whether the gates of Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo reflect Israelite state architecture. BAR readers will be especially interested in the videos of the Syrian temple of Ain Dara, which Lawrence Stager notes is our best archaeological parallel for understanding and reconstructing Jerusalem’s temple. The producers include films of the modern-day Passover celebration of the Samaritans to illustrate the importance of blood and animal sacrifice in antiquity. (NOTE: Vegetarians may want to avert their eyes during this section.)
Much of “The Bible’s Buried Secrets”explains the development of Israelite monotheism. It examines the theory that that the God of the Bible (YHWH) originated among the nomadic shasu tribes of Midian. Noting that Israelite and Canaanite sites both contain idols, the experts in this film emphasize that polytheism was the norm throughout much of the biblical period. It was not until after the 587 B.C.E. Babylonian conquest and exile of many Jews to Babylon that monotheism became the dominant religious. The special briefly examines evidence for the preservation of the Bible among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the seventh century B.C.E. silver scroll containing Numbers 6:24-26 from Ketef Hinnom.
The producers have done a magnificent job summarizing over a century of biblical archaeology and biblical scholarship in two hours. The film strikes a balance between the old-fashioned biblical archaeology approach, which tried to prove the Bible’s historicity, and the extreme skepticism of some minimalists, for whom the Bible contains little factual history. The documentary reflects the view of most mainstream biblical scholars and archaeologists, namely that the Bible, although a theological work, does contain some historical memories of the ancient Israelites. Scholars will lament the lack of a more critical analysis of some of the film’s claims, especially the proposed identification of David’s palace. The special often gives the impression that there was a single “Bible”in antiquity, and fails to acknowledge that many different versions of each biblical book existed. Nevertheless, viewers of this show should gain a greater appreciation for the Bible’s complexities, and gain some understanding of why it is difficult to correlate this theological text with the historical and archaeological record.
Uncovering the Bible’s buried secrets is a quest that is far from complete. By bringing to public light the sometimes arcane work of biblical scholars and archaeologists, the producers have done an admirable job showing how such concepts as oppression and freedom both created and shaped the peoples known as the Israelites—a group whose struggles still defines, and shapes, the religious faith of much of the world.